Boosting Results: Old-school search engine optimization is becoming just that

For years, Google had problems telling the difference between good links and bad links, but the world’s most-used Internet search engine has changed its search algorithm in order to make the distinction, and it’s having a sudden and profound impact on Web searches.

These changes help explain why companies that once placed high on Google’s search rankings, especially retailers with substandard mobile links, suddenly found themselves scrambling to explain plummeting rankings and to resolve mobile redirect errors. While Google isn’t the only player in search engine optimization, it is the dominant one and it has changed the game. Any company that wants to reign supreme in its search rankings must understand that paying for links will get it nowhere, but genuine content will.

 “If I can use Google Adwords as a proving ground, it’s an easier case to make to the boss that this is the ad we should run.” — Melissa Anunson, digital specialist, pc/nametag, inc.

The changes also bring new opportunities for businesses to reshape SEO strategy with Web content worth sharing. “Old-school SEO said you have to have this keyword so many times on a page, and put it on there and put it in the metadata,” noted Melissa Anunson, a digital specialist with pc/nametag, inc. “What businesses need in 2014 is a mind shift to consider their website a shopping tool. We consider our website to be another salesperson on the team. Once a business owner thinks about it that way, it’s less about selling stuff than helping customers buy.”

Since crafting and refining your SEO strategy is an ongoing task that requires constant evaluation, IB presents these 10 tips that help you conquer SEO one “byte” at a time. 

Keywords not as key

According to Sandra Bradley, an Internet marketing strategist and practice director for the UW-Madison E-Business Consortium, Google has stripped keywords from referrer data that once was seen in Web analytics. Referrer data pertains to the URL or Web address that tracks where a visitor to a Web page originated. While this keyword data can be accessed in Webmaster Tools, which are used to improve the ranking of websites in Google searches, keyword data is decoupled from downstream click data, which diminishes the value of keyword data. 

Keyword data is hardly irrelevant, but it’s sharing the spotlight with overall content. “There is a big shift in terms of less focus on keyword optimization and much more on page-centric content optimization,” Bradley asserts. “What is this page about and who else is sharing and/or using this content?”

Share and share alike

Bradley says being on Google Plus and other social networks brings higher search rankings because the more content is shared, the better it ranks. “You are seeing a shift from traditional link-building, which has been a staple of the past, to increasing share-ability of content,” Bradley noted. 

Get personal

Search is more personalized, Bradley notes, and local search is smarter and socially driven, including reviews, likes, and where friends have checked in. This social emphasis is creating more personalized and relevant results. 

Rather than just responding to a key phrase search, queries tap into Google’s Knowledge Graph, a knowledge base used to enhance search engine results by determining what kind of question is really being asked. 

For example, consumers can ask specific questions like “how many calories are in a double bacon cheeseburger?” Search engines might no longer give you 10 links about that topic, or where to find that particular burger, but it will answer the question with a specific result. 

“This changes how we think about search and how site content is created and structured to better answer questions people are asking,” Bradley added.

Optimize mobile 

Mobile access is also very important to search. Bradley says websites can get “dinged” if they aren’t optimized to handle mobile searches, and companies should be sure that their pages are easily accessed. This is particularly important because a recent Telmetrics study found that nearly 50% of users do research exclusively on their mobile devices.

“What companies can do right now is focus on their content strategies — creating shareable content and making it easy for people to share with clear sharing tools,” Bradley stated. “Content that is high value and timely will be shared more. 

“They should also test all pages to ensure that they are able to be accessed from mobile devices.”

Analyze keywords

Even with the change in emphasis, it’s still important to know the keywords — or more accurately, the keyword phrases — that people use to reach your site. Internet consultant Peter Kent, author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, recommends a keyword analysis before any SEO work occurs. “You need to understand keywords, and it’s surprising how many people want to optimize their websites and they never really looked at the search terms that people use to search for their products and services,” he explained. “They just assumed the keywords, and you really can’t do that.”

A keyword analysis can be done using tools like Google Adwords’ keywords, or third-party tools such as Wordtracker. “If you don’t do that, two things will happen: A) You will miss important keywords, and B) some of the keywords you would have chosen will be wrong,” Kent stated. “They won’t be important.”

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Use SEO tools as a proving ground

There are countless SEO tools, but Anunson is particularly supportive of Google Adwords because of the marketing intelligence it provides, especially now that Google Analytics has removed much of the reporting of how people get to your website. At the moment, she has nine ads running on Google for the same product, with the same keywords. She can track which advertisement gets the most impressions, carry that same concept into a print ad, and then also use the most popular and converted keywords and put those on the printed page. 

Print is hard to track, she stated, but “if I can use Google Adwords as a proving ground, it’s an easier case to make to the boss that this is the ad we should run.”

Format the site

Properly formatting your website means putting the keywords in the correct places on the site. In particular, URLs should be structured properly. “If you are a private investigator in Naples, Fla., on the URL line you will have your name and you might have a page that is optimized for ‘private investigator, Naples, Fla.,’” Kent explained. “The URL will say private-investigator-naples-fl-html, so you want keywords in the URLs. 

“You also want keywords in the title tag. You want keywords used in body text, and you want keywords in the links between pages within your site, and so on.”

Kent also advised registering your site with Webmaster, setting up a Webmaster account, and submitting your site to the account. You should also create an XML site map (a list of all the pages on your site) and submit that to the Webmaster account, and do it for Google and website optimization tools like Bing and Yahoo (Yahoo catches data from Bing, noted Kent). The reason you would submit this to the search engine is to make it easier to find a way to your site and to index your site. 

For your primary keyword phrases, it’s wise to create a page for each one that is optimized for each one. This is an optimization technique that is often lost on Kent’s business clients. “I have clients ask me why they don’t rank the phrases, and I look at their sites and discover they don’t have pages that have been optimized for those phrases,” he added. “So why would they rank those phrases?”

Think of linking strategy as PR strategy

Another result of Google’s recent changes will be to change linking strategies. It used to be that a “spammy” way to link would be to buy lots of links, often from an overseas provider, but the changes should result in more authentic and organic links.

“If you’re going to spam Google, you’re going to get away with it for maybe five days,” Anunson stated.

Therefore, the best linking strategy is to take care of your customer. There are a couple of automated tools that might help, but Anunson views it as a public relations or a customer-service action. “When you view it as some kind of technology, you’re looking for that auto generation, and that’s when you get spamming and that’s when you get hit by Penguin [a search engine watchdog] and Panda [a results-ranking algorithm],” she said. “So, yes, we are doing linking strategy, but we focus on internally generated content on the page that people want to view.”

Adds Kent: “We’re in a situation in which PR is going to become much more important because you want links from newspaper websites and radio and TV websites, and really high-value business directories and professional associations. You want links from bloggers who are writing about your area of business.” 

Be wise with social media

In a previous life, Anunson taught at the UW-Madison School of Business, where she would often hear people talk about needing a Twitter account, without giving it much thought. Twitter has its place, she noted, but only if the people on your subscriber list are inclined to send out tweets. Anunson points out that only 16% of people who use the Internet also use Twitter. “You have to consider what you can maintain and execute well for an extended period of time,” she advised. “What platform is your target market using?”

Measure, manage, and compete

Anunson poses the following questions: If your site isn’t linked to Google Analytics, Google WebMaster Tools, or another reporting service, how do you know where to start? How do you know how to justify allocating company resources? 

She also notes that it’s a particularly good time to view SEO as a strategic priority because others appear to be pulling back. An Adobe study published last fall indicated that only 40% of companies surveyed said they would invest more in digital marketing in 2014. “It’s not you versus Google, it’s you versus the other guy,” Anunson noted. “If they are not increasing their resources for search engine optimization and digital marketing, it’s a great time for someone to jump ahead and gain on the competition.”

The last keyword

Since 85% to 90% of all purchases, online and otherwise, start with a Web search, some equate the failure to optimize search engine rankings with opening a store and not hanging out a sign. Given the benefits of having your brand atop the search results, local or national, search is a crucial part of the sales funnel. “If you’re on the second page, you have pretty much failed,” Kent stated. “You need to be on the first page and, ideally, you need to be on the top half of the first page.” 

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Small Business SEO

Nicholas Gomez has taken the SEO reins at Weber Tires, proving that small businesses can smartly, and inexpensively, optimize search.

With a little help from classes at UW-Madison’s Small Business Development Center, Gomez has become the go-to guy for SEO at the family-owned business, located in East Bristol. Like his instructors, he knows SEO is changing from an old-school approach of buying links and “stuffing” keywords that may not be relevant.

“At this point, SEO to me is about relevant content,” he said. “What is going on at this moment, on this day, for your customers?”

The tire business isn’t a flashy one with the coolest products, so his appeals have to be more practical. It’s winter … making cars slide on the roads … tire pressure gets low. In a search, “people will type in long things like ‘where can I find the best tires?’” he noted. “They are not going to say Madison, Wis., but with geography and location, if you are answering questions on your website, and you are relevant to the area, Google is going to surface that because they want to serve you the best content, at the closest place around.” 

SEO now includes many channels, so Gomez also steers people to social media pages where there is interactive video. “Each one of those is a unique URL,” he noted, “so you post the link to Google Plus or Facebook and you can take that anywhere. If they like what they see and people utilize it, it’s on a results page.” 

Gomez only spends about three hours a week on SEO, but he makes it count by optimizing mobile pages for the website, writing copy, making sure video communicates what consumers need to know, and checking results on Google Analytics. At night, his reading list includes Search Engine Journal and Search Engine Watch.

The biggest takeaway from his SEO experience is simple: “You can be self sufficient in this world and not have to pay someone else to do it for you.”

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